The thing about elements is you rarely see them discussed separately. Rocks are boring without any context. Air is invisible. Fire is more immediately engaging, but only because of what it can burn. It’s the interaction of elements that makes them interesting. To make a game about them, then, is necessarily to make a game about molecular cooperation—even if, as is the case with Element4l, an atmospheric platformer by Brussels-based developer I-Illusions, it’s a strictly single-player experience.
There’s a subtle way in which even the concept of cooperation contradicts the popular video game metanarrative of “the Army of One.” Games are all about you, the player, how you are the single most important person in the universe, and how everything that takes place from the moment of your arrival is a direct result of your actions. In Element4l, you can’t change the world. The best you can hope to do is move gracefully through it. When I master a small stretch of level, it makes me feel that I’ve genuinely achieved something. Truly understanding the game may take a while, but the rewards are equal to the challenge. Or at least I think they would be—for the most part, they remain beyond my clumsy grasp.
Element4l is a bit of a square dance with oneself. The player controls a team of four elements: air, ice, rock, and fire. Pressing the corresponding button instantly transmutes your character to the corresponding element. These are the only inputs you have.
There are no enemies to avoid, and there are few environmental hazards more threatening than a hillside or a cave wall. Element4l feels a lot like playing a game of pool where no one else ever gets to shoot. There’s nothing to get in your way but yourself and the laws of physics, but these are more than enough. It’s a difficult and sometimes frustrating game, though I suspect I am also a below-average player.
The challenge doesn’t only come from the fact that the available inputs are so indirect compared to most platformers. The really hard part is that you have to manage your momentum very carefully to keep moving. The tightly designed levels and sometimes-unforgiving physics offer few opportunities to gather easy speed. When you’re not playing well, Element4l feels less like a platformer than a finicky puzzle game (which makes sense, because that’s what it was to begin with). Failing several hundred times in one level, as I have done more than once, can be awfully frustrating, and a loss of momentum sometimes becomes permanent when the checkpoint system places you several feet beyond a useful slope.
But it feels appropriate that a game about cooperation should be so hard. The thing about being the single most important person in the universe is that it lets you brute-force your way through most problems. The thing about brute force is that it’s easy, both from a player’s perspective and from a game developer’s. Teamwork is another thing entirely.
In Element4l, there’s a way in which switching elements feels like trusting someone else. You can’t control what’s going to happen once your ice becomes, say, fire. You just have to hope that fire will take care of you—that your teammate’s going to do his part.